on 7 July 2009
At its core, 'Werewolves in Their Youth' is a collection of eloquent and moving stories about the fragility of human relationships. Yet despite this fragility, you never quite shake the sense that in the alternately amusing, profound and downbeat stories in here, loneliness is as hopeless an alternative as conventional community. This book is, as a result, made of odd stuff indeed.
Chabon's characters are frequently outsiders, or people breaking through the limits of conventions both societal and self-imposed. The family unit remains the focus, the scattering of individual pieces of the post-nuclear American family. As such, the stories are bound by opposites- childbirth and child death, marriage and divorce, separation and reconciliation. Yet they remain effective in their own right.
The collection opens with the title story, 'Werewolves in their Youth', a story of absent fathers that manages to enter convincingly into a child's perspective. The father in 'Son of the Wolfman' is also absent, albeit in a more startling fashion, yet the stories follow a similar path of withdrawl and reconciliation. Or there's stories like the wrly comic 'House Hunting', where a drunk estate agent serves up a timely reminder of the innate difficulty of marriage to a couple of erotically uninspired newlyweds.
The stories here run the risk of being 'worthy'- the topics they handle are inherantly serious. In the hands of a less skilful writer, tales involving the mental scars of rape, paternal abandonment and childhood sexual trauma would seem too... forced. Too dramatic. Yet Chabon manages to tell his stories without emotional hysteria, managing nonetheless to get a rich vein of meaning from his motley band of pathos-ridden misfits.
The last story here, the schlocky parodic horror-story 'In the Dark Mill', initially seems an anomaly, an odd tale to end a volume of weighty (if accessible) realist prose. Yet its mixture of odd comedy and frustrated goals are familiar from the preceding works. As for the motif of cannibalism- well, who can think of a more potent metaphor for the destructive yet symbiotic nature of human relationships?
Don't let the 'big' topics put you off- 'Werewolves in Their Youth' is a quick read, written in the elegant yet fast-paced style of Chabon's best work. It could well be a good introduction for those put off by the sheer length of Chabon's magnum opus, 'Kavalier and Klay'.
In short- this is a fantastic collection. Highly recommended.
The first story in this effervescent collection of short stories is the titular one which describes the difficult relationship a nerdy, overweight boy, Paul, has with his next door neighbour's son Timothy, a kid who lives through comic books and who currently believes he is a werewolf. Timothy is large and sturdy and because of his utter belief in himself is a nuisance at playtimes and especially with the girls, who treat him with contempt and tease him by turns. Paul hates Timothy, but because he lives next door he has been unfairly linked with Timothy, and the headteacher has habitually relied on Paul to bring him back to something like normal behaviour. The boys are pre-teen (I would think around 10-12). To make matters worse Paul's Mum has banished his father from the house and in common with many children in such a situation, Paul's feelings are a mixture of shame, distress and relief that he no longer has to listen to their rows or witness his father's impotent violence. The plot skitters delightfully towards the absurd but utterly realist ending.
Chabon's gifts in these stories are obvious: he is deeply empathetic towards outsiders, especially the victims of broken marriages (men, women and children), or random and sometimes horrific events. Only in the last story In The Black Mill, did I lose my concentration as a horror story built somewhat unlikely premises and fell apart in a conclusion that merely set another puzzle.
Overwhelmingly, these stories are glittering, gracious and damned good.